West Bank killings could scupper Shalit prisoner deal

On the eve of the anniversary of the Gaza war, Israeli forces killed three suspected Palestinian militants accused of being responsible for the killing of an Israeli motorist. The suspected militants were once Israeli prisoners, authorities say.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
A Palestinian holds a candle during a demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah, marking the first anniversary of the Gaza war, Sunday.
Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
A Palestinian labourer prays near the border with Israel, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Gaza war, in the Northern Gaza Strip, Saturday.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinians walk past a mural depicting captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, December 22.

On the eve of the anniversary of Israel's offensive in Gaza against Hamas, an outbreak of violence in the West Bank could complicate a long anticipated prisoner swap that would ease tensions in the war-torn coastal strip.

In an early morning raid in the heart of Nablus, Israeli special forces hunted down and killed three Palestinians accused of being responsible for a shooting attack that killed a father of seven on Thursday as he driving the roads of the West Bank.

But the fact that those killed had been released from Israeli jails could give new ammunition to Israeli opponents of a seminal deal with Hamas to free hundreds of Palestinians in return for Sgt. Gilad Shalit after three years imprisonment in Gaza.

"An escalation of attacks contaminates the atmosphere, especially on the Israeli side,'' says Yoni Fighel, a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. "We're talking about public psychology. It will be a problem for the government to decide on something like that, and they'll wait for better weather."

Last week, Israel appeared to be on the brink of a decision on the Shalit deal, but instead returned a counter offer to Gaza through a German mediator. A formal response by Hamas has not yet been made.

Israel reportedly is resisting releasing some militants to their homes in the West Bank for fear it could spur a renewal of such attacks. Instead, Israel has suggested expelling the prisoners to a third country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is thought to be wavering between pressure groups calling for Shalit's release and those warning him that it could cost the lives of Israelis.

The Israeli army said special forces raided Nablus overnight Saturday to arrest those responsible for killing of Rabbi Meir Hay while driving his car with his children. The army said that bullets from weapons found in houses of the three men match those that killed Hay. The men, in their 30s and 40s were linked to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party.

"Our policy against terrorism is clear," Netanyahu said. "We will continue to respond aggressively – against any attack on Israeli citizens and against any firing of rockets or missiles at Israeli territory.''

In other violence, Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinians in Gaza over the weekend who were in a no-man's land near the Palestinian side of the border. In the West Bank, there have been two incidents in which Molotov cocktails were thrown at Israeli cars In the West Bank.

Speaking at the funeral for the men, Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad condemned Israel's offensive in Nalbus as a "dangerous escalation." He added that the operation had undermined the state of security which the Palestinians have achieved.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has won praise from Israel for taking over security responsibility for cities like Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron. The boosted stability in the West Bank has strengthened the economy as well.

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